Understanding Sexual Harassment Laws

On June 10, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced SunTrust Bank will pay $300,000 to settle claims that a branch manager in Sarasota, Florida, sexually harassed three female employees. The EEOC initially sued SunTrust in 2012 in a federal court proceeding. Rather than proceed to trial, SunTrust agreed to a “consent decree” requiring the company to not only pay the $300,000, but also “to conduct annual, live training for its managers and human resources personnel in Southwest Florida, which the EEOC will be able to watch by live streaming video.” The EEOC will oversee SunTrust’s training efforts for the next three years.

Sexual harassment is a serious matter that can affect any business regardless of size. All Florida small businesses should understand what is—and is not—sexual harassment and take the appropriate steps to avoid the type of conduct that landed SunTrust in hot water with the EEOC.

Sexual Harassment Is Sex Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for any business employing at least 15 people to discriminate or base employment decisions on a person’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Congress charged the EEOC with enforcement of Title VII. Acting under its regulatory power, the EEOC defines “sexual harassment” as a form of discrimination based on sex prohibited under Title VII.

EEOC regulations further define sexual harassment as “[u]nwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” when such conduct affects a person’s employment. For example, in the SunTrust lawsuit, the EEOC said a branch manager repeatedly harassed female employees by “repeatedly trapping a 20-year-old female behind the teller counter with his body; telling a woman she should wear a bathing suit to work; regularly staring at women’s breasts; and frequently caressing and grabbing a female employee.” (Please note that these remain allegations, and SunTrust’s decision to enter into a consent decree does not constitute an admission of guilt.)

Employer’s Responsibility

When one employee sexually harasses another, the employer is responsible, according to EEOC rules, if management or ownership “knows or should have known of the conduct,” and fails to take “immediate and appropriate corrective action.” This means employers must always be proactive in discouraging and preventing sexual harassment. Even small businesses should have procedures in place for receiving and addressing sexual harassment complaints.

The EEOC takes a broad view of sexual harassment. It is not necessary for the harasser and the victim to be members of the opposite sex. A male supervisor can sexually harass a male employee. Nor is it necessary for the victim to suffer any direct injury like loss of income or termination. And the victims of sexual harassment can include persons indirectly affected by the misconduct, such as an employee denied a promotion because another employee was promoted in exchange for sexual favors.

All this means that even a small employer should work with an experienced Florida business attorney who can help navigate the complexities of sexual harassment and other federal and state civil rights laws. If you need assistance, contact Naples attorney John S. Sarrett today.

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